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Friday, March 24, 2023

'I didn’t know how much it would affect me until now': Students struggle without mid-semester break

During the mid-semester, many students and faculty experience burnout and exhaustion caused by weeks of schoolwork, heightened by the midterm slump.

Traditionally, students are able to curb this exhaustion with a nine-day spring recess before they finish up their last few weeks of the spring semester. But this year, in the hopes of minimizing student travel and activity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, UW-Madison has abandoned its spring break.

Instead, the university is offering no classes on Saturday, March 27, Friday, April 2 and Saturday, April 3, along with an extra week of winter break that students enjoyed in January. 

Due to the prevalent challenges posed by the pandemic, along with the normal stressors of a spring semester, some students are struggling to find the time to relax and recharge that a normal spring recess offers.

“I was a little sad when we did not have a spring break but I didn’t know how much it would affect me until now,” said Cordy Nguyen, a sophomore studying political science and English. “It feels like a chore to tell myself that I just have to get through this week, except I have to tell myself that every week and it makes it worse that we are only half way through the semester, and I wish I could have a break from all the school work.”

UW faculty are also feeling the pressures of the mid-semester without a recess and noticing its impact on their students.

“I certainly think that people got burned out very quickly,” said Cabell Gathman, a part-time lecturer of Gender and Women studies at the university. “The way that people often feel at the end of the semester, like as finals are coming up, I think most of us, students and instructors as well, felt that way very early in the semester, and it just didn't get any better. Even coming back after the winter break, folks were a little bit recharged. But again, I think very quickly, people feel more overwhelmed this year sooner.”

UW initiatives to address mental health

Last week, the university held a Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit to address students’ mental and physical health amid the pandemic through workshops and activities. The idea for the summit was first proposed to administrators by Dean of Students Advisory Committee member and UW-Madison senior Elias Tsarovsky as a way for students to learn about the resources available on campus and utilize them.

“Use this mental health and wellbeing summit to really check in with people,” Tsarovsky told The Daily Cardinal. “This is campus administrators showing that they care about mental health and well being. So, hold them accountable for it, because everyone does care and we really need to just work together on it.”

While the summit was held in a virtual format, some students did not have time to attend the live discussions.

“I know UW had a wellness summit last Thursday and Friday but I had a midterm on Thursday at the exact time as the speaker,” Nguyen said. “I have been so overwhelmed with school work that I couldn’t go on Friday either because my choices were either to complete assignments I am behind on or attend that summit.”

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Other students felt that the format was not ideal when most every day activities are also online, causing students to be less motivated to attend. 

“Attending an event online after a day of online classes is not doable for many,” said ASM Chair Matthew Mitnick.

The university also hopes faculty can offer support and connection to the students in their classes. On Monday, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Zumbrunnen addressed UW instructors on “the importance of self-care and wellbeing.”

“I encourage you to consider how you might, as you think appropriate, share your own experience with students, including challenges you’ve faced and ways in which you practice self-care,” Zumbrunnen said. “Hearing directly and personally from instructors who they respect and admire can be incredibly powerful and important for students.”

Implementing the academic calendar changes

The UW-Madison Faculty Senate approved the removal of the spring recess in September. Other Big Ten schools, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, Purdue University and Indiana University also removed their spring breaks for the year. 

“This situation highlights one of the many unprecedented challenges universities face during a pandemic,” said UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone. “We hear the concerns that students are sharing and have taken a number of other steps to address them, including holding the Mental Health and Wellbeing Summit and week of caring.”

Students, including Mitnick, wished that the University had considered other options when proposing the academic calendar changes.

“It is really disturbing that the administration cancelled spring break without any viable alternatives,” Mitnick said. “I recognize the safety concerns; however, if UW implemented a Moral Restart with virtual instruction, then they could have a spring break no problem. In September, I told the Faculty Senate that they should do the same thing that they did for the fall semester during Thanksgiving — keep the spring break as was previously scheduled and just put in-person courses online for the remainder of the semester.”

As of Wednesday night, over 3,700 students have signed an online petition calling to “Give UW-Madison Students Wellness Days.” According to the 2021-2022 academic calendar, recess time is allotted for both Thanksgiving and during the Spring 2022 semester.

“I’m not doing as poorly as I assumed I would be, but I’m not great,” UW-Madison freshman Emily Widgren said of the abnormal semester. “I have struggled with fully understanding the material in my classes and staying focused on my lectures. I want to apply to grad school and I’m afraid that this year and possibly next if we continue with this online format and start to take away breaks that I’ll continue to struggle.”

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